With the holidays approaching, it seemed appropriate to crack open a classic Christmas tale to regale Muse readers. Please bear in mind that this is a true story (as are all the stories that appear in the Muse). If necessity is the mother of invention, mishap is the mother of comedy, as this story illustrates.
As a preface, I need to explain that these things occurred while I was a student at Teen Challenge, a Christian discipleship program founded by the late David Wilkerson, pastor of New York City’s Times Square Church and author of The Cross and the Switchblade. There are whole volumes that could be written about the man and the program, but suffice it to say that I used the program as an extended Christian retreat, as many do, in order to get more of Christ Jesus into my life.
Doing Teen Challenge was a rigorous undertaking. For a full year, I spent scores of hours studying Scripture, worked full time doing often tedious and unpleasant duties for the ministry to pay for my keep, and prayed as if my very life depended on reaching God (which it did, actually). The journey was full of many things: heart-rending difficulty, the warmth of human bonding and hysterically funny events. It was a living cornucopia that I paid for in pain, hard work, privation and an entire year of my life.
The event in question happened on Christmas Eve 2010. That morning, I drove up to Salem, Oregon with another student, Joe, to sell Christmas trees for the ministry. We had set up shop in the parking lot of the Lancaster Assembly of God Church. We pulled in to see the comforting sight of a hundred Noble Firs stacked in rows—full, lush-green and fragrant. It was a cold, overcast day that promised ease and pleasure. The reason was, first of all, that tending the Christmas tree lots was the best detail a Teen Challenge student could possibly land in December; there was no supervision, and the work was enjoyable. Most everyone is in good cheer when they’re shopping for a Christmas tree. When we weren’t trimming and loading Christmas trees for people and chatting them up, we sat in the vehicle to keep warm, listening to music and talking over coffee.
This day was different, however. Joe wasn’t much of a talker. Besides, we were bored stiff after three hours without a single customer. I was coffeed out and beginning to lose interest in my book. We began to suspect that we wouldn’t see a soul the entire day when a white SUV pulled into the parking lot. Two slender ladies climbed out as I hopped out to greet them. But the women quickly informed me that they weren’t there to buy a Christmas tree.
Joe and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Neither one of us could think of any reason why we shouldn’t talk to them. It sounded like a great way to liven up a dull day. We gave our consent, having no inkling that anything was amiss.
The reporter (Marika) and her camera operator moved to unpack their equipment while Joe and I stood by. Ten minutes later, they had us standing side by side with a row of trees forming a backdrop behind us. I remember remarking inwardly that they were both very nice to be around, particularly Marika, who was sharp and professional.
The questions were humdrum at first, and I recall thinking: What’s the big deal about tree sales on Christmas Eve? It must be a really slow day. Marika’s questioning established the number of trees we had sold that day: zero. Then things got interesting.
Marika said, “I would think you guys would do much better with something flashy to attract people to your lot—some lights or something.”
Joe responded, “Well, the truth is that we were sent out here without a key to our supply trailer this morning.”
I saw a flicker of mirth in the reporter’s eyes. Sure enough, she pounced: “You were sent out without a key? And your lights are locked away in that trailer?” she asked, pointing at it.
“Yes,” Joe said with a trace of apprehension in his features. This situation was taking on a life of its own, and Joe must have realized that it was rather impolitic to be disclosing the blunder to a news reporter, being as it was that we were Teen Challenge students, after all, with authority figures to answer to. But the cat was out of the bag. Suddenly Marika’s features were bathed in humorous congeniality. She had been doing a boring story. Now she was doing a funny story.
Talking to the news about our situation brought a measure of invigoration that completely overshadowed thoughts of consequences. Neither Joe nor I had ever been interviewed by a news reporter, and neither of us had ever seen ourselves on television. But just a few hours later, back on campus, we found ourselves gathered around the television with our comrades, watching what was from all accounts a very funny news clip. Little did we know that certain Teen Challenge executives were watching too, and they weren’t too happy about what they were seeing.
The clip started out with a prominent display of the Teen Challenge banner that hung over the entrance to the tree lot. Then came Marika’s voice-over, asking viewers: “Who shops for Christmas trees at the last minute? We talked with two local men who were trying to sell Christmas trees today but who weren’t having much luck. And it’s no wonder: They’re running without lights, extension cords, signs, tools—or their Santa suit. It’s all locked in this trailer, and they were sent out this morning without the key!” Here the camera zooms in on Marika’s hand jiggling the lock, just to prove that this is a real, honest-to-goodness snafu.
Then I watch myself say: “All we’re relying on is that people will notice that there are Christmas trees stacked here. I may have to stand by the road and gesticulate at passing motorists.”
Marika laughs. “What does gesticulate mean?”
“It means to gesture,” I say, making sweeping movements with my arms, pointing at the Christmas trees. “You know, ‘Christmas trees over here!'”
She laughs again. “So why would people shop for Christmas trees at the last minute?”
“They think they’ll end up with fresh-cut trees that will last longer.”
Marika’s voiceover asks: “So just how fresh are these trees?”
I look over at Joe and then back at her. “We’re not absolutely sure.”
The voice-over continues with Marika commenting in a light tone that in spite of everything, we’ve been making the best of it in our toasty warm vehicle. The camera captures me reading my book and Joe taking a long drink of coffee, both of us leaning back in our seats looking far lazier than could possibly be justified by the mere absence of customers.
My last utterance is spoken in full humorous form: “I might do some laps around the parking lot later…” with a hint of, “…but I won’t, I’m too lazy” in my voice. Then the wrap-up.
The students all had a good laugh. So did Joe and I, but the day after Christmas, we were both sitting in the office of Russ, the Program Coordinator, trying to explain that we had no idea it was against the rules to talk to the media.
It turned out that not only Russ, but the Executive Director and the President of Teen Challenge Pacific Northwest all saw the newscast that day. What followed, no doubt, were several phone conversations in clipped tones, and, as so often happens in situations like this, the proverbial dung rolled downhill. Now Joe and I were the final recipients of its fecund momentum as we sat there in Russ’s office.
“You made a laughingstock out of Teen Challenge,” Russ glowered at us.
It didn’t seem wise to point out that Russ himself had set all the laughter in motion that day by sending us to work without the key to the trailer. Besides, I knew that, given the politics of the situation, there was no possibility of reversal. Our sit-down with Russ was a mere formality.
Joe and I got two dead weeks for that news clip. That meant that the next two weeks would not count against the required year of matriculation. Depending on graduation dates and such, it might mean an additional month in the program. Moreover, we would spend those weeks without any privileges, including phone calls, visits and all gratuitous food (candy, snacks, etc.). Everyone at the center knew all the intimate details of our misadventure, so the imposition of dead time produced a Scarlet Letter effect; we were like adulterers living in a small town. Finally, all our free time over those two weeks would be spent in the classroom. This was absolutely the worst part of the punishment, since the classroom at the Willamette Valley Training Center is a most dry, severe and otherwise torturous environment. Two weeks, the minutes ticking by in hour-long increments, the time stretching so interminably that even a book worm like me began to approach insanity toward the end of it.
But after the thing blew over, I felt like it was all worth it. I still do. It was an enormously entertaining episode for us students, a lesson on politics and a humorous anecdote for posterity in the bargain. A few days after I was off dead time, I made the Executive Director wince by asking him to make me a copy of the clip on VHS. As much of an affront as my request was, I had to make it. You don’t get on the news every day. But it wasn’t to be. He said he couldn’t copy it from his DVR. Months later, after finishing the program, I went into Channel 2 News in Portland and inquired about obtaining a tape of the clip, but they didn’t have it in their archives anymore.
I don’t know what the moral of the story is. I leave it up to the reader. I hope the story inspires laughter and prodigious comments. How important it is to laugh, especially when the joke is on us!